Random House, the last of the Big 6 Publishers to allow libraries to purchase and lend ebooks on a 1-copy-1-patron (pretend-its-print) basis, said last month that it was going to raise its pricing for libraries. The new pricing isn't set in stone, but Library Journal has reported that libraries are being asked to pay as much as three times the price of a print copy for a lendable ebook from Random House.
The general reaction from the library world was nicely summed up by ALA President Molly Raphael in an official press release: "In a time of extreme financial constraint, a major price increase effectively curtails access for many libraries, and especially our communities that are hardest hit economically."
Well, yes. But 5 years from now, libraries may well look back on Random's move and recognize it as the beginning of a new, healthier relationship between public libraries and trade publishers, one that recognizes libraries as an important player in the "reading ecology". Here are the reasons why I think it might happen:
- eBooks aren't books! So why should the price of a library-lendable eBook be locked to the price of a print book? Once the prices of lendable ebooks are allowed to float, market forces will move them up and down. For some books, high profile best sellers for example, the market price for a lendable ebook might be 5 or 10 times the print price. A year later, that same book would have to be steeply discounted to be sellable in the library market. Books without a buzz, or by a new author might be offered to libraries well below the print price, in an attempt to prime the market and spread the word.
- High prices for library-market books are nothing new! In academic markets where libraries make up a significant fraction of the buyers, prices are already over $100 per copy. That's because the sales impact of inter-library loan and other forms of library sales-substitution is built-in to the price.
- Higher prices give libraries more leverage. This is the most important benefit of higher prices for lendable ebooks. Libraries aren't being forced to buy the 3x ebooks- they will consider prices and their limited budgets before investing in them. They'll need to demand digital product features tailored to libraries to make them worth premium prices.
This last point is the big IF. With its move, Random House has made clear what it wants out of a new relationship with libraries- more cash per copy. In return, libraries need to demonstrate what they expect for their money. What should libraries require from their premium ebooks in exchange for premium prices? Here's my list:
- Portability - the ebooks shouldn't be locked to the distribution platform of a particular vendor; most libraries have existed longer than Overdrive, Adobe, Apple and Amazon combined and libraries would like to continue existing after those companies have been long forgotten. Their ebooks should persist as well.
- Transferability - libraries can make their ebook assets go a lot farther if they can be traded to other libraries or library consortia.
- Privacy - libraries should never be forced to expose their users to the prying eyes of anybody!
- Accessibility - libraries will increasingly be relied on to provide text-to-speech and other accessibility technologies to users who need them.
- Integrability - libraries don't want to be sources of friction, they want to provide integrated information environments. Library systems will increasingly provide capability such as annotation, discussion, advanced discovery tools and social interaction; they won't be able to do that if their ebooks are walled off behind third party DRM.
But, back in the real world, most public libraries that offer ebooks are having difficulty keeping their digital shelves stocked due to overwhelming user demand for ebooks. If ebooks cost 3 times what they did last year, the availability will be 3 times worse. How can this situation get back into balance? I have three suggestions. First, if ebooks don't expire, as in the Harper-Collins scheme, the supply of ebooks will grow over time so that even if long wait times for hot titles are the norm, plenty of 5-year-old ebooks will be there to read for library users. Second, libraries can steer users to ebooks that don't have pretend-it's-print lending limits: those in the Public Domain or in the Creative Commons.
Here's an idea for a way that a smart publisher could help a library convert its print collection- offer a 1 for 3 (or 1 for 2) p for e trade-in. The publisher's sales of new books would improve by suppressing competition from used books, and the library would gain inventory of older books to slake reader book-thirst.
Both libraries and publishers need to move on from backward-looking economic models. The time to start doing so is now. We can make it happen.